I’ve lately had a front row seat to the daily life of a musician as she puts the finishing touches on her latest album.
Lissy is singer, guitarist, pianist, banjo player…and my fiancee.
I met her at one of her shows at a club in D.C. It was a set up, but I was late and I missed her perform. Instead, I offered to help her pack up her gear after the show. The rest is history.
“I hear a lot of things in my head, as you know,” Lissy explains to me when we talk about how songs are born.
Indeed, I know: “Late at night I say, ‘pull out your phone,’” she says, meaning my phone “‘I need to record this.’”
“Jelly Roll,” the new album, started two years ago with a few of those rough melodies. From there, she took to her banjo, guitar or keyboard to flesh out fuller harmonies and give her songs more deliberate shape.
Mornings and nights, I’d find her at the kitchen table, recording different elements of the songs, one layer at a time, until she felt they were ready to be rehearsed with the band and tested out on the road at live shows.
For the lyrics, Lissy pulled from her own life experiences and always kept an ear out for a good turn of phrase, gathering words “from whoever will give them to me, from people on the street to your grandmother to relatives back in Atlanta to wherever.”
A native of Atlanta, Lissy grew up waking to her mom playing the piano in the house and singing songs with her dad. Hal Beaver, my future father-in-law, is a blues musician. Every Memorial Day, he would take Lissy, her sisters and brother to the Ole Time Fiddler’s and Bluegrass Festival in Union Grove, North Carolina, the longest running old-time fiddler’s contest in the country. (Lissy’s family can trace its roots to one of its founders.) It was on those stages, there with her dad his band Blackgrass, where she first sang in front of a crowd.
“I grew up with all this old-time music, with my Union Grove fiddler’s festival in the family, so I knew the sounds of claw hammer and old-time picking.”
Although she grew up surrounded by music, Lissy wasn’t always on the path to becoming a performer. She has a Masters in physiology and biophysics from Georgetown University and had a fellowship at the National Institutes of Health doing cancer research. At one time on her way to becoming a doctor, she instead she decided to drop medicine for music.
She went back to the banjo, and after a brief stint with a local group, she launched the Junior League Band. Her first albums were more influenced by the old-time sound she grew up listening to with her family, what the Washington Post called “down-home folk, the kind of music you picture friends playing on someone’s back porch in Faulkner’s South.”
“Jelly Roll” is less country and a whole lot more rock ‘n’ roll. “I’m trying to really appeal to…what my fans really like, which is generally more of an upbeat sound and a nice vocal range and ideally some thoughtful lyrics,” Lissy says.
What I’ve learned in the time that we’ve been together — in a way that I hadn’t known before — is that being a professional musician requires a lot more than just writing and performing. It’s often more like running (or being) your own small business. You have to make money and you have to make a name for yourself. There are the demands of meeting the bottom line and, for Lissy, the newfound challenges of keeping the books. She knows the banjo and the harmonicas, she knows vocals and harmonies, but…
“I don’t know accounting,” she says.
She’s done well enough that she now hires a rotating stable of players instead of dealing with a having a regular band.
“I wanted to make sure it didn’t end if one person fizzled out and didn’t want to play anymore,” Lissy explains.
“They are happy. They are getting paid. I’m happy because they are playing really well and not giving a lot of attitude. They give me what I want and I give them a lot of space to show off their talents.”
Nine musicians contributed to “Jelly Roll”: John Lee on guitar, Brandon Kalber on bass, Sadie Dingfelder on violin, Ian Thompson on drums, Jesse Hopper on Rhodes piano and William Waikart on percussion. In addition, the musicians who make up Levon Helm’s horn section perform on the album, with Erik Lawrence on the saxophone, Clark Gayton on the Tuba and trombone, and Steven Bernstein (of Sex Mob) on cornet and alto horn.
When she’s not touring with the band, she plays as a solo act, using the opportunity to showcase more of her old-time material, recently opening for Rosanne Cash. Someday, I hope Lissy Rosemont becomes a household name — and not just in mine.
You can watch the video for the album’s title track, “Jelly Roll,” here. (Further disclosure, I’m the redhead dancing.) And here is a link to Lissy performing one of the album’s singles, “A Curious Thing,” for Harvey’s Kitchen music blog.